Changing the Teaching of History, One Byte at a Time

Photo credit: SITES Exhibitions via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In October 2010, a fourth grader returned from school and set her history book on the table. Flipping through Our Virginia: Past and Present, a book approved by Virginia’s State Department of Education, her mother came across a sentence that made her livid. The book claimed that “thousands” of African Americans fought for the Confederacy, “including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” This mother, Carol Sheriff, also happened to have a PhD in history and was on the faculty at Virginia’s College of William and Mary. “It is disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim,” she said. “It concerns me not just as a professional historian but as a parent.”

That thousands of African Americans voluntarily fought to safeguard their continued enslavement is a claim that can be verified in no archive. No document supports it. No self-respecting historian embraces it. The claim is spread by those whose mission is to cast the bloodiest war in American history as a conflict over the “Southern way of life.” The myth of “Black Confederates” is constructed of whole cloth, analogous, as Professor Sheriff put it, to asserting that the Jews “helped the Holocaust.”

“I Found It on the Internet”

How does pseudo-history burrow its way into materials for schoolchildren? When a Washington Post reporter contacted the publisher, Five Ponds Press, and asked where their author got her facts, they provided the reporter with three links, all to same website: the Sons of Confederate Veterans — a “patriotic, historical, and educational organization . . . dedicated to . . . preserving Southern Culture.”

As teachers will tell you, it is not just textbook authors who get duped by digital con artists. In an age in which “library” is spelled G-o-o-g-l-e, accepting false information as truth is an everyday classroom occurrence. Responding to teachers’ queries about how they “know” that our president was born in Kenya or that the Mossad (or George Bush himself) plotted 9/11, students (our so-called digital natives) blithely respond, “I found it on the Internet.”

Exploring the Gray Area

How, then, do we close the gap between old world teaching and the 21st century world that students are linked to by their smartphones? Don’t hold your breath for a change in the textbook industry. Curriculum materials will all become digital — the same drivel packaged with multi-colored illustrations and interactive maps. What then? We can wait for Godot or . . . we can get to work.

My colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group have chosen the latter path. Over the past three years, we’ve uploaded to the Internet scores of lesson plans for teaching American and World history, each organized around questions that stick their finger in the eye of a single right answer. We’ve come up with assessments that privilege thinking over memorizing. Our curriculum celebrates the ambiguity of the social world and teaches students to cope with it. Each lesson comes with original documents so that students can hear the cacophony of voices belonging to people who made history. These sources often feature diametrically opposed perspectives, shedding light on history from multiple angles. They are supplemented by classroom-ready materials that scaffold students’ small-group discussions.

Have we changed the world — or even our little corner of it? Hardly. But we take solace in the hope that, after encountering our materials, students will no longer defend their conclusions about history with the sham justification, “I found it on the Internet.”

Read the entire article by Sam Weinburg on Edutopia at

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